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LTE in Africa: an assessment of the state of play
A regular column on the information industries
Article Type: Rearview From: info, Volume 18, Issue 2
Peter Curwen is Professor at the Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
When it comes to the licensing of mobile networks, Africa has always lagged behind other regions for understandable reasons. It is still playing catch-up with respect to 3G, but it is simultaneously engaged in addressing the need, sooner or later, to roll out 4G in the guise of long term evolution (LTE) which is de facto the worldwide standard.
The first aspect for analysis is the state of play in the issuing of licences specifically for LTE. In practice, this is a complicated matter because many licences originally issued for 2G or 3G were technologically neutral and hence permitted the introduction of LTE services without the need to amend the licences. In other cases, the spectrum has to be refarmed and a specific regulatory authorisation is required. Finally, new spectrum bands are being opened up and these need to be allocated for the provision of LTE services either via an auction, a beauty contest or government diktat.
There are 55 countries/islands in Africa, but many of these appear to have taken no concrete action of any kind with respect to LTE provision, and only a minority appear to have awarded spectrum specifically for LTE. #T1 attempts to clarify the position at the end of 2015, but it has to be admitted that it has not always been possible to verify the information with absolute certainty. It is of interest that, whereas most of the licensees are 2G/3G incumbents, LTE licenses have also been awarded on a few occasions to relatively unknown parties.
It is of no small interest to compare the data in #T1 with the data on LTE network launches which are as follows in respect of incumbent terrestrial networks, 38 in total:
Algeria: 1 launch in 2014.
Angola: 2 launches in 2012.
Botswana: 2 launches in 2015.
Ethiopia: 1 launch in 2015.
Gabon: 1 launch in 2014.
Ghana: 1 launch in 2014.
Kenya: 1 launch in 2014.
Madagascar: 1 launch in 2015.
Mauritius: 3 launches in 2012, 2012 and 2015.
Morocco: 3 launches in 2015.
Namibia: 2 launches in 2012 and 2013.
Nigeria: 2 launches in 2014 and 2015.
Rwanda: 1 launch in 2014.
Seychelles: 1 launch in 2014.
South Africa: 5 launches in 2012, 2012, 2013, 2013 and 2015.
Tanzania: 3 launches in 2013, 2015 and 2015.
Uganda: 3 launches in 2015.
Zambia: 2 launches in 2014.
Zimbabwe: 3 launches in 2013, 2014 and 2014.
As can immediately be seen, there is a considerable mismatch with #T1 which indicates that most launches so far have involved refarmed spectrum which has been deemed to be technology neutral. As it happens, regulators and operators in Africa can be rather coy when it comes to specifying the spectrum bands used, but it is evident that the 1,800 MHz band has been used for LTE launches far more than any other band.
It may also be noted that some launches have taken place involving non-incumbent operators, although these appear to number only ten, with one in 2013, five in 2014 and four in 2015. Worldwide, such launches typically involve mobile virtual network operators providing services over incumbents’ networks, but there is an alternative model which appears to be gaining traction in Africa.
Incumbent networks almost always utilise paired spectrum bands – one for the uplink and one for the downlink. However, LTE can also be provided using so-called TD-LTE which incorporates both uplink and downlink within the same band – albeit with the downlink occupying a much larger share of the total bandwidth. TD-LTE typically uses relatively high spectrum bands such as 2.3, 2.5 or 3.5 GHz. The operators in these bands almost always started out as WiMAX licensees, but this technology is now rarely used when 4G is under consideration but rather is overlaid with LTE.
When WiMAX licences were awarded in Africa, usually after 2007, several companies acquired them in a variety of countries. Such companies included iBurst, Smile and, most notably, Afrimax which has formed an arrangement with Vodafone to brand itself as Vodafone-Afrimax. However, progress has so far been hampered by a number of factors including poor indoor coverage in urban locations, inadequate bandwidth and lack of scale. The issue, therefore, is whether a small number of operators such as Afrimax will be able to scale up either via takeovers or by acquiring spectrum returned by rivals that have gone bankrupt and provide a service that provides a downlink comparable in speed to that of the incumbents while offering competitive prices.
One obvious advantage of TD-LTE compared to WiMAX is that it much improves the prospects for roaming across incumbents’ networks and the provision of state-of-the-art handsets is another. Hence, Afrimax will present a threat to incumbents once it launches but progress is modest and there are few operators comparable to Afrimax as things currently stand. Meanwhile, there is clearly no great rush among incumbents to invest on the requisite scale to roll out LTE other than in major cities, so Africa is clearly destined to remain an LTE backwater for the foreseeable future.
It may be argued that, with relatively small numbers able to afford high-speed data-rich contracts, expanding 2G coverage and rolling out faster versions of 3G such as high-speed packet access (HSPA+) is more of a priority than LTE. Indeed, significant advances have been made in recent years to develop useful applications such as money-transfer schemes, so the issue is not an overall lack of progress but rather the perennial desire of those living in developing countries to have access to services increasingly enjoyed in Europe and the USA.
About the author
Peter Curwen is Visiting Professor of mobile communications at the Newcastle Business School. Peter Curwen can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org